More On Bullying
Keeping myself away from the news and talk radio has its upsides and downsides. On the upside, I am not fed a lot of prepackaged pabulum designed to simultaneously enrage and soothe particular target audiences. On the downside, I sometimes miss important stories like the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince as a result, it is alleged, of pressure from bullies. I’ve touched on this ground before, but it bears repeating: bullying, physical or verbal, leaves scars. It hurts. Some people never recover completely, even fine folks like Your Humble Narrator. Miss Prince, an immigrant from Ireland, appears to have gotten the verbal treatment, which isn’t necessarily better, but is less likely to leave physical/visible scars. I hate this $#!t. With a passion. Since I’ve been sorting this stuff out lately, I’ll just share my story, and you can make of it what you will, but the past has a long reach, sometimes well into adulthood, and that reach is never pleasant to feel.
Imagine being born with a low-level hormonal disorder that prevents you from growing for the first year of your life. This disorder, while caught after 11 months or so, prevents you from growing, rolling over, crawling, standing, or any of the normal stuff that kids typically do by “the appropriate age.” You spend the next eight or nine years in physical therapy and learning disabilities programs learning basic motor skills. Add to this interesting quirk of genetics a higher-than-average intelligence, extensive vocabulary, emotional sensitivity/instability/immaturity, and an incredible lack of tact. What you have, if you’re a small boy in the football-minded suburbs of Chicago, is a recipe for social disaster. What follows from this sort of behavior? Physical threats. Actual hitting. Insult contests to see who can get the weak kid to cry first. Stalking the kid through the hallways or on his way home from school to make sure he doesn’t feel safe even within the comfort of his own home. That’s what the bullies are doing; but what’s happening inside the mind of the kid being bullied?
Perhaps we can start with something simple, like isolation and social naivety. The kid doesn’t have a lot of friends and is very desperate for friends because he has so few to begin with. This makes him eager to please, but also gullible when people feign friendliness in order to get the kid to fall for something. The kid gets burned enough times, he ends up not trusting offers of kindness, friendship, or love for fear of being betrayed and humiliated. Any sign of displeasure from a friend is immediately acted upon in a placating matter, again because friendship is so dearly sought and so rarely given or obtained. In later relationships, this results in a willingness to be a doormat. The boy (and later the man) assumes that any errors or hurt feelings are automatically his fault since he often offended people with his youthful disdain or confidence or condescension. In later years, the kid becomes a perfectionist, determined to be good at as many things as possible—speaker, writer, performer, student, friend, cousin, brother, son—to avoid giving others any reason to dismiss or abandon or dislike him because any sign of disapproval is a sign that he’s not doing enough. That he’s just not good enough. The resulting trap being, of course, that the perfectionist eventually realizes that perfectionism itself is the problem, leading to an even more heroic effort to “fix” external circumstances or himself.
No, that’s not all bad, but such behaviors have spiritual consequences and costs. The ones who caused the damage are long gone from the boy/man’s life when the long-term consequences are felt, but their presence is still felt in every interaction, every good thing, every failure. Some kids, lacking the inner resources to combat such inner terror, seek escape from the present through suicide. To those who inflict such pain I would see you educated about the full consequences of the damage you do. I don’t know what form that education should take, but I would hope in the end you come out of it with something approaching sympathy.
And in the meantime, if you were fortunate enough to escape your schooling with a minimum of abuse at the hands of your peers and you have kids, pay attention to their lives: are they being bullied, or are they the ones inflicting the pain? Both groups need your attention.